[Ed note: This is the final of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
In this closing essay of a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology I want to suggest a direction that was only briefly hinted at in two of the preceding 13 essays: More engagement with political economy. Harland Prechel argued for a need to focus on how political-legal institutions shape managerial behaviour and Jerry Davis discussed increasingly precarious employment for the working class. The broader subfield is also largely silent on issues of political economy, with a very few notable exceptions including Neil Fligstein and Jerry on financialization, Mark Mizruchi on the corporate elite and Harland on big business and the state.
In my view there is much to be gained from engaging traditional organizational theory with political economy focused on structures and dynamics of profit seeking, capital accumulation and class relations. A turn to political economy can help to grasp the deeper structures and historical dynamics underlying the mid-range phenomena that are typically the focus of organizational theory.
[Ed note: This is the 13th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
I organized the panel on “The Future of Organizational Sociology” at the 2014 American Sociological Association annual meeting, which inspired the present virtual panel. The motivation for the original session arose when, in quick succession, I had to update the syllabus for my graduate course on organizations and design a comprehensive examination reading list in the field. Both tasks force the instructor to take stock of recent developments in a field and try to make sense of them for students. Contemplating the work published over roughly the last two decades, I found myself puzzled about what to include. On the one hand, there were active research conversations that seemed to be taking place almost entirely among management faculty and in management journals—and thus arguably outside the disciplinary boundaries of sociology—such as the one on “institutional logics.” On the other hand, there was no shortage of sociological research involving organizations in some way, but most of it seemed better classified under (and was often clearly intended to speak to) another subfield of the discipline such as sociology of work, economic sociology, or social movements.
Work that could be uniquely identified as “organizational sociology” seemed to have largely disappeared.
What happened? Historically, organizational sociology operated at a relatively high level of abstraction. The goal was to understand and explain the structures and practices of complex organizations of all kinds, across multiple spheres of social life—not only business organizations, but also government agencies, schools, hospitals, nonprofits, even voluntary organizations. To be sure, in practice the empirical focus was on businesses and, to a lesser extent, public agencies. Still, there was an underlying assumption that it was possible and worthwhile to identify general concepts, principles, and processes that applied to all types of organizations. As Dick Scott has pointed out, there were always dual intellectual and practical aims, but they dovetailed in supporting the study of “what is” and “what works” across organizations in general. Today, it seems there are few sociologists (and even fewer graduate students) who are interested in developing or extending abstract concepts and theories about why organizations in general exhibit certain structures and practices, or which ones work best from the organization’s point of view. The broad pattern is the same in both sociology departments and business schools, although the institutional details differ.
[Ed note: This is the 12th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Organizational sociology, I would argue, has become increasingly sophisticated over the years; but it has done so in ways that make it less interesting to non-organizational sociologists and, hence, less able to survive outside the hothouse microclimate of a self-styled organizational studies program. From my particular vantage point in a sociology department on a campus without a business school, the problem is this: Most of my students – graduate as well as undergraduate – arrive in sociology with interests that they do not see as organizational: Globalization and development, health and medicine, environment (yes indeed Chick!), social movements, inequality, urban structure, science and technology, occasionally law. But only rarely “organizations.” I (like most readers of this blog, I suspect) see all these topics as profoundly and thoroughly organizational. But how do I make that case to the next generation of sociologists?
Of course, I can share my excitement for the ins and outs of organizational ecology and institutional theory, resource dependence and network embeddedness, even institutional economics and competitive strategy. But these conversations all too often end on an awkward note: “Wow,” says the student, “You really seem to like this stuff. So what does org theory tell us about [insert a “non-organizational” topic from the list above]?” I pause and gather my thoughts: “It tells us that organizational practices are institutionally constructed and constrained; that outcomes are shaped by cultural and political forces; that interorganizational exchanges are embedded in social networks; that organizational boundaries are porous; that workplaces are rife with interpersonal dynamics and informal structures and biases; that…” “Wait,” says the student, sounding as though I’ve just plucked away the football that he/she was about to kick, “so why should I study organizations, then, instead of studying institutions or culture or politics or networks or small-group processes?”
[Ed note: This is the 11th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
A response to the question of what is the future of organizational sociology first depends on understanding how the institutional and organization environment has changed.
In commenting on changes I make some assumptions, i.e., an open systems perspective and competition for attention occurs in an ecology of institutional space.
Below is a partial natural history of observations, not necessarily in an event sequencing order or from systematic research. I don’t know much about blogging and assume that the purpose is to be provocative to raise questions that generate discussion.
[Ed note: This is the tenth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
I was happy that the Organizations, Occupations and Work Section sponsored a panel discussion at the American Sociological Association meeting this year (2014) on this topic—one that has long been of concern to me. I’m old enough to remember when organizational sociology was a major focus of our discipline and occupied a central place in the programs of leading sociology departments. In its modern guise, this field emerged slowly in the late 1950’s, grew to prominence during 1970s, and was still strong well into the 1980s. We then witnessed the sad spectacle of the majority of graduates of these programs being snatched up by business schools, with others moving into various administrative or policy programs. These graduates continue to teach and study many aspects of organization, but their agenda has been curtailed by the context in which they operate and is often inflected by the dominance of economics in these settings. In this brief essay, I propose to respond to and amplify the comments of the some of the panel members, in particular, Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens.
I was surprised (shocked!) to hear Howard opine that organizational sociology could have no future because it had no past! For evidence, he pointed to the fact that most of the contemporary research on organizations published in the leading sociology and management journals deals with contemporary organizations, mostly located in the U.S. I think this observation is empirically biased because it excludes the large and rich array of studies published as books and monographs. (Sociology is fortunate enough to be a two-literature field: we still write and value books as well as articles!) But, whether or not the evidence is confirmatory, it is irrelevant to the issue of concern. A review of what contemporary sociologists are currently doing tells us nothing about the past history of our area of scholarship!
[Ed note: This is the ninth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Does organizational sociology have a future?
The more important question is does mankind have a future in view of climate change. Sociology in general has been slow to deal with this problem, the major one facing mankind, and since organizations are responsible for most of the mounting emissions of greenhouse gases, organizational theorists should be leading the way. As I recall no one at the 2014 ASA panel on the future of organizational sociology mentioned climate change or the role that large polluting organizations play (even though Harland Prechel is doing great work on the topic).
Perhaps it is to be expected. Over the last 10 or so years papers at the annual American Sociological Association meetings that mention climate change (or global warming, as it used to be called before we got politically correct) were in rural sociology or the newly emerging environmental sociology, and dealt the effects of warming on gender, race and poverty, and did not mention the big emitters. It was not until 2012 that we had a thematic session that dealt with organizations and warming. But we have a “society of organizations” and big polluters are among the biggest and the most powerful. Organizational sociology would have a great future if it turned from the themes of the panel and addressed the greatest threat to mankind.
[Ed note: This is the eighth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Following the panel on “The Future of Organizational Sociology” at the 2014 American Sociological Association meeting, there seems to be a worry that we’re a subfield that is out of touch with mainstream sociology. But for a field in trouble, organizational sociology does very well in our discipline’s most important journals. Looking at issues of the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review published in the last year (since June 2013) and based on my rough coding of abstracts, articles that are primarily about organizations, occupations, and work made up 29% of AJS articles and 32% of ASR articles. The articles cover a diversity of theoretical and empirical issues, from explaining businesses’ responses to economic recessions, the influence of category-spanning on hiring among freelance workers, to the effects of corporate downsizing on management diversity. If I had included all articles that use organizational theories, in some way, to explain a phenomenon, the percentages would be much higher. Based on these numbers, it’s hard to see how anyone could make the case that the future of organizational sociology is anything but bright.
So why is there such fear that organizational sociology’s future is in danger? Clearly, the existence of high quality research on organizations and work is not the problem; rather, I think the fear reflects changes in the constitution of the subfield itself. Our concerns stem mainly from the lack of organizational scholars in sociology departments and an increasing association of organizational sociology with business schools. Some people worry that organizational sociology is being diluted as a category of sociological research due its increasing presence in business schools. If organizational sociology is no longer taught in sociology departments or practiced by people who have PhDs in sociology, the subfield is going to become disassociated from the rest of sociology and lose its relevance.
[Ed note: This is the sixth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Organizational sociology may have reached its high water mark 25 years ago, when Chick Perrow penned “A society of organizations.” Perrow argued that organizations had absorbed society, which implied that organizational sociology was now the master key for making sense of society. He stated, “I argue that the appearance of large organizations in the United States makes organizations the key phenomenon of our time, and thus politics, social class, economics, technology, religion, the family, and even social psychology take on the character of dependent variables.” Stratification happened through organizational practices of hiring and promotion. Work went on inside organizations, structured by organizational rules. Social movements increasingly constituted themselves as formal organizations. In a society of organizations, organizational sociology should be the sun around which the other subfields in sociology orbit. Instead, organizational scholars are scarce on the ground in most departments today, as if the Rapture had come and left behind only the demographers and criminologists.
Many or most of the disappeared wound up in business schools. It’s not hard to see why: the money is better, and the jobs were more plentiful. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that b-schools are crammed full of organizational sociologists, at least in North America. While fancy schools like Stanford, Northwestern, and MIT are strong outposts for organization theory, most schools are not. Hiring is typically driven by teaching needs, and there is surprisingly little demand among MBA students for courses on organization design (much less institutional logics or categorization). Most organization theorists in business schools wind up teaching strategy and, if they want to get tenure, publishing work that can pass for strategy. All of this bodes ill for organization theory, wherever it is done.
[Ed note: This is the fourth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
In my view, organizational sociology has a past – indeed, a LOT of past. But it is less clear whether it has a future.
Consider a simple word association test. When I say “organizational sociology”, what do you think of? You probably think of core theoretical paradigms such as organizational ecology, the new institutionalism, network theories of organizations, and the neo-Weberian view of bureaucracy. Perhaps you would be inclined to put evolutionary organizational theory into the mix. And, if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you might add organizational ethnography, theories of organizational culture, and even the Carnegie School. These are the major frameworks that emerged (or were reborn) between the 1950s and the 1970s; and came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.
When I say “organizational sociology”, it is also likely that that you’ll think of the scholars who developed these perspectives. I’ve listed a number of them here, including many familiar names (Ruef – Table). I have also listed some of their most influential articles and books, as well as the staggering number of citations for them.
The past is about people, not just ideas. So what are these folks doing now? Unfortunately, we have had a number of leading organizational sociologists pass away over the last few years, including John Freeman in 2008 and Michael Cohen last year. And a number of our leading luminaries have recently moved to emeritus or emerita status – although some, such as Dick Scott, remain as active as ever.
[Ed note: This is the second of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
As teachers, we often hear that the future will be shaped by our students. If this is the case, then the signs are mixed and confusing. On one day, a good omen may appear, typically in the form of an enthusiastic undergraduate. At the University of Chicago, these students are often economics or public policy majors who have encountered a piece of organizational analysis and seized upon it as the key to understanding the complexities of the policy process, firm behavior, or the organization of markets. On less auspicious days, our most dedicated graduate students present a different vision of the future, one in which organizational researchers risk becoming overwhelmed by a meta-literature, focused on agendas, epistemologies, ontologies and reflections.
This tale of two students poses a challenge for organizational sociologists. How can we retain the capacity to inspire while demanding of ourselves the kind of rigor and clarity that are represented by all those discussions of ontology, epistemology, and method? This challenge is not new. As a graduate student, I received the following job market wisdom circa 1990: “Go out on the market as an organizations person. Everyone knows they need one. Everyone thinks they are boring.” If I could pull off a performance as an interesting organizations person, I would do just fine.
These three tales remind us to revisit a key question for any scholar: What makes something interesting?